My favorite photograph shows my children trudging through a cold, whispering creek hand in hand. The afternoon light filters through the canopy, refracting across the lens in an angelic glow. The girls are still little. Our youngest wears a heavy diaper that skims the surface of the shallow water. The energy is electric. Magical.
The waterway bubbles and winds along the border of our property, cutting a five-foot canyon into the red-clay earth. Along the bottom, the creek ripples over slick stones and fallen trees, which hide red salamanders and tiny fish. A small stretch of sand forms a narrow beach where we’ve often found the footprints of wildlife. Our favorite belongs to a bobcat, though we are still hoping to find a bear print.
Looking at the picture now, the scene blooms in my mind. I can feel the warm breeze brush my face and hear the girls giggle. Our camp chairs and a cooler rest on the shore. This became our ritual; to worship the fading light of summer afternoons and relax listening to the rippling waters of the creek. A quiet delight, as the girls played and explored.
There is another photograph taken along the same banks I do not look at, though every detail is etched in my mind. My youngest daughter, Em, is laughing, holding a roasted marshmallow; white, sticky strings of sugary goo wrap around her fingers. Her brown hair is pulled back in a ponytail, hiding my first and only attempt at a haircut. She’s wearing a turquoise bathing suit with a mermaid’s sequin tail gracing the front. Em is just barely six years old.
On this day we built a fire, roasted marshmallows and enjoyed the trickle of the brook. This day was the last time we visited the water. The last time we walked the winding trail and stomped across the handmade wooden bridges to enjoy the warmth of the sun.
Three days after that last image was snapped, Em was diagnosed with cancer.
It’s a sharp word, cancer. It slices through any conversation surrounding it. Especially when it’s associated with a child.
I can never find the right words to speak of this time. Tiny fissures formed through our souls; cracks that may never heal. A silent wailing began in our hearts; cries we will always hear but never voice.
At six, Em was spared the tortures of possibilities. The following eight months were a blur. The world faded to the background; the pandemic, the protests, the election, and everything in the aftermath. Certain instances remain clear. The feel of my fevered daughter’s bald head pressing into my cheek, her delicate bones revealing themselves beneath her thin skin. The sharp, searing stab in my stomach when we were told we had to amputate her leg.
Life doesn’t stop for one family’s tragedy. We went to work, we went grocery shopping, and we celebrated holidays. Often from behind the whitewashed walls of a hospital room. We kept going, not because we were brave but because we had no choice. Em kept smiling and laughing and being a child even when shadows crossed her face in quiet moments. She was the brave one.
This was an in-between time that made us unspeakably fragile yet tethered us together. There is no returning to the old, to the time before. We are different now. We are weathered and calloused, weary and tender.
We have seen the ravages of chemo on a young body. We have laid awake praying we would not have another visit to the ER. We have shown our smiling faces to a child as she woke from anesthesia with one less limb. Normal no longer exists. There is only new. New experiences. New Joys.
In my weak moments, I look at the last image we took along the banks. I long to feel the sun on my face, to hear the whisper of the water and the laughter of my children. To exist without the weight of remembering.
We survived. All of us but not all of us. Em is now in third grade and moves swiftly on her prosthetic leg. She understands she must embrace her new body and will never outgrow the obligation to answer questions or smile at staring strangers. When our adult bodies grow tight and defensive, she laughs or tells us a joke.
But some days she cries and begs to be whole.
She doesn’t speak of her treatment. We try not to speak of the time before.
Perhaps it is through remembering we can heal. Perhaps our survival will give way to living once again.
The creek is still there. Still flowing and gurgling over rocks and branches. Still rising with the floods and receding with the droughts. The wildlife still flourishes and frolics along the shore. The sun still filters through the leaves, illuminating the bed in a soft magical glow.
And when we finally decide we can return with our camp chairs and our cooler, it will be ready to tickle our toes and make us laugh in the after.
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